New Assessment Tool Aims to Help Treatment Courts Identify Racial Bias

Diverse people group

The upcoming presidential election, the 25th anniversary of the federal 1994 crime bill, and the enactment of the First Step Act, have rekindled the national debate on the urgent need for criminal justice reform at the federal level.

But much of the work to reform the criminal justice system is happening at the state and local level. State prisons house 1.3 million of the 2.3 million people confined nationwide (88% at the state level and 12% at the federal level); and that population is disproportionately people of color. However, state courts are finding that the mass incarceration model is expensive and does little to enhance public safety or reduce crime.

In a shift from a punishment to a rehabilitation mindset, states have a system in place to divert justice-involved individuals with substance use and mental health disorders from traditional courts into treatment programs to focus on the root cause of an individual’s issue and, ultimately, to reduce recidivism rates.

Since 1989, treatment court programs have offered effective solutions to address substance use and mental health disorders among justice-involved individuals. However, recent research has shown that disparities may exist in some treatment court programs when it comes to who has access to the programs (eligibility and participation), completion rates (graduation), and recidivism outcomes.

A recent study of more than 17,000 treatment court participants found that African Americans graduated at lower rates than other participants. “Specifically, the study found that African Americans had the lowest graduation rate (37.9%) in the sample, compared to that of Caucasian participants (54.7%), Hispanic participants (49.2%), and those who identified with another race and ethnicity (54.2%).”[1]

To look at this disparity more closely, the Justice Programs Office (JPO) team in the School of Public Affairs at American University, following site visits around the country, and in collaboration with experts in the field, developed and is piloting a Racial and Ethnic Disparities (RED) Program Assessment Tool. The tool was developed to help treatment court professionals identify and examine areas where racial and ethnic disparities may exist in their court programs and their policies.

The secure, confidential web-based platform is designed to capture information about treatment court operations and procedures. It assesses treatment court programs through a series of open and closed-ended questions on court information, intake, assessments, demographics, team members, training, drug choices and treatment/support services, and evaluation and monitoring.

Using a scoring rubric and algorithm, the RED Program Assessment Tool provides treatment court teams with an overall assessment score, scores for each section of the assessment, and recommendations on alleviating racial/ethnic disparities.

We are a long way away from implementing comprehensive criminal justice reform and eliminating mass incarceration in the United States. Treatment courts are an effective criminal justice intervention and are a form of criminal justice reform that states are using today to get people the help they need. The JPO team is encouraging treatment court teams to assess their programs and to continue to help our most vulnerable find success, and return to their families and their communities.

To learn more and to take the RED Program Assessment, contact NDCRC at (202) 885-2875 ndcrc@american.edu

About the Team 

The JPO team, which manages the National Drug Court Resource, Policy, and Evidence-Based Practice Center, provides resources, tools, and evidence-based best practices for treatment court professionals serving justice-involved individuals with substance use and mental health disorders.

[1] Racial and Ethnic Disparities (RED) In Treatment Courts Issue Brief, Dr. John R. Gallagher, PhD, LSW, LCAC

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